Racing Roundtable: Senor Buscador's Saudi Cup upset, Timberlake's Rebel win, and Lemon Muffin's potential

February 27th, 2024

This week, the Racing Roundtable convenes to discuss Senor Buscador's upset of the Saudi Cup (G1), Timberlake's win in the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn, and Lemon Muffin's potential for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

What are your takeaways from the Saudi Cup?

James Scully: Senor Buscador turned in a career-best performance, rallying determinedly to overhaul Ushba Tesoro and Saudi Crown in the final strides, and he’s really come on in his last two starts for Todd Fincher, recording a neck second in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) prior to the Saudi Cup. The late runner is discovering his best form as a six-year-old, and Senor Buscador will now look to prove himself at 1 1/4 miles following a pair of top-class efforts at nine furlongs. I won’t put longer distances past the peaking older horse.

Ushba Tesoro ran big for second, and Saudi Crown appears to have upped his game as a four-year-old, delivering an outstanding showing on the front end. The latter will bring dangerous speed to future engagements.

Vance Hanson: Senor Buscador is not the most adept nine-furlong performer, but make that a one-turn 1 1/8 miles and he becomes a global star. Senor Buscador is now 4-for-5 lifetime in one-turn races, which kind of tells you the path connections should probably take with him, if at all possible. I don't fault them for wanting to take a shot at the Dubai World Cup -- it appeared for a long time in the Saudi Cup that he could have needed more ground -- but his record suggests that race won't be quite as strong a fit.

Saudi Crown ran a great race, but basically proved that mile races are also more his forte. He's on to the Godolphin Mile (G2) and possibly the Metropolitan H. (G1), which is at Saratoga this year. National Treasure's and White Abbario's recent momentum both stalled, but I'd expect White Abarrio to bounce back more effectively on his return to America, given he didn't really run at all. National Treasure seemingly ran his race, but wasn't good enough. Finally, the Japanese pair of Ushba Tesoro and Derma Sotogake again proved they're on par with the best of America's leading older males and would be prime contenders again in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) if they line up.

Ashley Anderson: Senor Buscador got the perfect setup for him to turn the tables on a number of rivals who had previously defeated him in graded stakes. The deep-closing, one-turn specialist got a hot pace from Saudi Crown, who was pushed by National Treasure, and the 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup was only raced around one turn, with a longer homestretch than any in the U.S. Japanese runner Ushba Tesoro also rallied late to finish a head second to Senor Buscador, who stopped the clock in a stakes-record 1:49.50. The six-year-old opened his 2024 campaign with a neck second to National Treasure in the Pegasus World Cup, and Senor Buscador should move up the older dirt male rankings with his win. National Treasure and recent Louisiana (G3) hero Saudi Crown should remain near the top of the rankings as well, but White Abarrio, who was arguably the leader of the division, saw his resume take a hit with a 10th-place finish in his first start since his Breeders' Cup Classic victory.

How impressed were you by Timberlake's Rebel performance?

JS: Champagne (G1) winner Timberlake wasn’t flashy, rallying from just off the pace to a two-length score in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel at Oaklawn Park, but it was encouraging to see him win his comeback following a weakening fourth-place effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). The Into Mischief colt looked extremely promising at times but proved inconsistent last season, and Timberlake rates a viable Kentucky Derby (G1) contender at this point. He’s eligible to keep progressing for Brad Cox, and Timberlake will look to enhance his prospects with a strong showing in the final prep.

VH: It was an effective effort returning from a long layoff, but certainly not one to knock your socks off as it appeared he didn't progress all that much off his better juvenile form. He didn't need to, obviously, given he was an odds-on favorite to beat the rest of them. I like how he settled more nicely early on, though his drifting in the stretch and his post-race antics when handlers attempted to drape a garland around his neck suggest he still has some maturing to do. It's a result he can build on as he moves forward to either the Arkansas Derby (G1) or Blue Grass (G1), but I'd be on the lookout to fade him again if another miserly price is offered.

AA: Timberlake improved in his second two-turn start, rebounding from his fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to score a two-length win in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel. The Into Mischief colt recorded a 97 Brisnet Speed figure over a fast track and earned a 119 Class Rating for the victory, but the Race Rating came back light at 114. Timberlake was the class of the field on Saturday, yet Brad Cox noted afterward that he, "looked like he may have been getting touch tired late." While he's currently at the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, I am still a bit skeptical of him as a Derby contender until I see him stretch out farther and beat tougher competition. The Arkansas Derby, if he goes there, will be a good litmus test for his Derby potential.

Can Lemon Muffin follow in Secret Oath's steps for D. Wayne Lukas?

JS: I am skeptical. Kudos for her maiden win, but the Honeybee (G3) came back slow and Lemon Muffin did not appear to face quality competition.

I'll also mention Run Classic, who closed boldly to win Saturday's six-furlong Gulfstream Park Sprint going away by 3 1/2 lengths. Long layoffs have plagued Run Classic’s racing career - the six-year-old returned from a 296-day hiatus on Saturday - and the promising sort has always been a one-turn specialist despite making six of his 12 career starts at two turns. His future now appears strictly in sprint stakes, and I give Run Classic a legitimate has a shot to develop into a top-class performer if he remains healthy.

VH: It seems unlikely on paper, given Lemon Muffin's Honeybee was considerably slower than Secret Oath's, but I wouldn't discount her chances of eventually running well in the Kentucky Oaks. According to Lukas, the filly had been crying out for more distance, and she showed as much in convincing fashion despite her maiden status. Keep in mind, also, that this crop of three-year-old fillies might not be as deep and/or fast as the one in 2022, so Lemon Muffin might not to have be as good as Secret Oath if there are no Nests, Echo Zulus, etc. around.

Finally, Lukas' record of Honeybee winners includes other above-average winners. In addition to Secret Oath, he also had 1989 winner Imaginary Lady, who went on to finish a solid second to Hall of Fame stablemate Open Mind in the Kentucky Oaks. Imaginary Lady had previously captured the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and later won the Black-Eyed Susan (G2) and Princess (G2).

AA: It's difficult to compare the two at the moment, since Lemon Muffin needed six starts to break her maiden but had been racing at sprint distances in her first five starts, while Secret Oath has never run a sprint distance and kicked off her career with a third on debut racing a mile over a muddy track. She graduated at second asking, then finished fifth in the Golden Rod (G2) before winning three straight, including an eight-length allowance score at a mile, a 7 1/4-length win in the Martha Washington, and a 7 1/2-length win in the Honeybee. At this stage of her career, Secret Oath was much farther ahead in experience and resume compared to Lemon Muffin, and D. Wayne Lukas' three-year-old would potentially get just one more route start before taking on the Kentucky Oaks. But if anyone can pull off another victory in the Oaks it's Lukas, who earned a record-tying fifth Oaks win with Secret Oath and would set a new record should Lemon Muffin collect the garland of lilies. The 88-year-old trainer, who will receive the first ever Kentucky Derby Museum Lifetime Achievement Award ahead of Derby 150, has also won the Honeybee seven times, the most by any trainer.